The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part II: Marcus Spears vs. Stephen Bowen vs. Jason Hatcher

By Jonathan Bales

In the first part of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the nickel linebacker position.  Today, I will take a look at defensive end.

Coach Wade Phillips loves to rotate his defensive linemen.  The chart to the left displays the percentage of snaps each of the defensive ends played in 2009 (it adds up to 200 percent since there were always two ends on the field).

Notice that Igor Olshansky led the group at 62.8 percent of snaps, but that wasn’t even twice as much as the player with the least snaps (Jason Hatcher at 38.2 percent).  Marcus Spears, the starter opposite Olshanksy, played just slightly more (51.6 percent of all snaps) than  his backup Stephen Bowen (47.4 percent).

With Spears’ and Bowen’s snaps so evenly distributed, you could effectively call them starters 1A and 1B.  Spears is the run defense guy (53.2 percent of his snaps came against the run), while Bowen is the Cowboys’ pass-rush specialist at end (79.6 percent of his snaps came against the pass).

In case you are wondering, 50.5 percent of Olshansky’s snaps came against the run, while just 32.2 percent of Hatcher’s came in the same situation.

A lot of questions have arisen of late regarding this snap distribution.  Is it time to provide Bowen and Hatcher (Hatcher in particular) with more snaps?  Spears, Bowen, and Hatcher are all restricted free agents.  There is practically zero chance of the Cowboys retaining all three players, particularly with seventh-rounder Sean Lissemore waiting in the wings.

Spears is by far the most likely candidate to leave Dallas, and there still exists an outside chance he is traded before the start of the season.  If not, however, you can still expect a tremendous battle for playing time at defensive end during training camp.  Spears’ probable departure only adds to the likelihood of Bowen and Hatcher receiving more snaps.

In my view, it is time to transition Bowen and Hatcher into the lineup a bit more.  In our 2009 Defensive End Grades, Spears, Bowen, and Hatcher all received nearly identical grades (all around 80 percent).  If the Cowboys coaches also view the players as interchangeable (which appears to be the case), then it is time to slowly scale back Spears’ snaps.  Let the players who will be here in 2011 play now.

Scouting Reports

  • Marcus Spears

Spears has never gotten the credit he deserves because fans had unrealistic expectations for him.  As a run-stuffing 3-4 end, he was never going to put up big numbers.  He is an intelligent, hard-working player who still has a role in Dallas.  His lack of pure pass-rushing ability, though, will limit his 2010 snap count.

  • Stephen Bowen

Bowen is the player most likely to pilfer some of Spears’ snaps.  His sack and quarterback hit percentages led all defensive ends, so he will surely once again be the Cowboys’ nickel end.  If he can show he is capable of holding up against the run, he could steal Spears’ starting gig.

  • Jason Hatcher

Hatcher is a personal favorite of mine and a player I labeled as one likely to bust out in 2010.  Despite playing significantly less than the other defensive ends, Hatcher racked up the most quarterback pressures.  Pressures, in my opinion, represent a players’ future sack total better than any other statistic.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see Hatcher (assuming he receives enough snaps) rack up six to eight sacks this season.

Pros/Cons of Starting. . .

  • Marcus Spears

Spears is still fairly stout against the run, so he is by no means a liability for Dallas during early downs.  The problem is that everybody and their brother knows Spears won’t be in town in 2010.  If Bowen and/or Hatcher’s play is comparable, shouldn’t they get more reps?

  • Stephen Bowen

Bowen has a legitimate shot at starting, but he recorded only 13 tackles all of last season and played less than 100 snaps against the run.  Is he ready to hold up against the offense’s “big boys” during early down work?  How will that affect his pass rushing?

  • Jason Hatcher

Hatcher appears primed to break out as a pass rusher, but I have some doubts about his ability to consistently hold up against the run.  His tackle rate of 1.81 percent last year was the worst on the team.

Advantage

Right now, I’d give Spears the slight advantage as the projected starter.  As is the case with so many positions in football today, however, the label ‘starter’ really doesn’t mean much.  More crucial is snap distribution, and I think you will see that change in 2010.

Listed to the right is my 2010 defensive end snaps projection.  The big “loser” is Spears, who would see his snap count decrease by about 10 percent.

I think you’ll see Spears begin the season as the starter, again playing on only running downs.  Bowen may get substituted in a bit more to start, but I could see the initial 2010 rotation as similar to that of last season.

As the season progresses, you’ll likely see the playing time of both Bowen and Hatcher increase.  This is dependent on play, but the Cowboys are likely eager for both players to see more action, particularly on some running downs during which Spears would normally be on the field.

All of this could change with a spectacular camp from either Bowen or Hatcher, of course, making this an awesome battle to monitor this summer.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part I: Jason Williams vs. Sean Lee

By Jonathan Bales

As Cowboys training camp approaches, somewhat of a paradox surrounds the team.  Excitement and confidence are plentiful, yet there are a multitude of question marks for the Cowboys on offense, defense, and special teams.

Who is going to be starting at left tackle?  How about in the slot?  Who will return punts and kicks?  Will David Buehler win all kicking duties?  Who will be the nickel linebacker?  The free safety?

The Cowboys, as one of the league’s most talented squads (perhaps even the creme of the crop), sure do have a lot of question marks.  But it is important to differentiate between a “question mark” and a “hole.”  At this point, there are no obvious holes on the team–no blatant weak spots.

Instead, there are positions where dependable play has been replaced by potential.  But why the switch?  Why substitute an unknown commodity for dependability?  Well, if you can only “depend” on a player for mediocre play, then plugging in the ‘potential,’ even if it is a risk, is probably the right move.

For example, who would you rather have starting at left tackle: a player who the Cowboys can count on for average play (Flozell Adams), or a player who has, say, a 75% chance of being a tremendous player, but could also flop (Doug Free)?

There is no right or wrong answer.  Perhaps it is savvy to fill a team with both high risk/high reward players and more dependable ones with less upside.  One thing I know, however, is that teams with mediocre players don’t win championships.  Organizations that take chances win it all, and the Dallas Cowboys are taking a lot of calculated gambles heading into the 2010 season.

One such gamble is heading into camp with various positions “up for grabs.”  In our new “Cowboys Training Camp Battles” Series, I will analyze these positional battles, detailing who I think will win each job and why.

In this first installment, I will take a look one of the Cowboys’ backup positions (albeit an important one)–the nickel linebacker spot.

Battle for the Nickel Linebacker Job

The Cowboys were ensured a new nickel linebacker in 2010 after Bobby Carpenter was traded to St. Louis.  Second-year man Jason Williams, who is practically a rookie, will battle with Penn State’s Sean lee for the job.

Jason Williams Scouting Report

Taken from my article on the potential impact of second-year players:

Williams is an athletic freak. He ran a 4.4 forty-yard dash at his Pro Day. Had Williams had all of 2009 to learn, that kind of speed could have really helped Dallas.

He may not be as instinctual as Lee, but if Williams can reach a point where he is fully comfortable with the mental aspects of his position, watch out.  He would then be able to let his athleticism take over, and he is undoubtedly the most athletic inside linebacker on the team.

Williams is also a competitor who will embrace the challenge laid before him.

Sean Lee Scouting Report

Taken from my post-draft analysis:

Positives: One of the hardest workers you will ever meet, surprisingly athletic, great in coverage

Negatives: Slightly undersized for a 3-4 defense, coming off of 2008 knee surgery, may not have a very high ceiling

Lee is a much different player than Williams.  His athleticism will surprise you, but he is nowhere near Williams in terms of speed or explosion.

There is a lot more that goes into player linebacker then speed, however, and Lee has all the intangibles.  He is intelligent, hard-working, and a great leader.  His upside might be limited, but so is his downside.

Pros/Cons of Starting Williams

Williams is a high risk/high reward player.  I feel confident in saying he is much more likely than Lee to give up a big play, but also much more likely to make one.  For a Cowboys defense that did everything right in 2009 besides force turnovers, Williams may be the smart pick because he offers the Cowboys more playmaking ability.

Pros/Cons of Starting Lee

Lee is the opposite of Williams–a low risk/medium reward player.  I love Lee’s character, but I can’t seem him making a ton of game-breaking plays.  On the flip side, he also won’t give up many big plays.  I compare him to a young Zach Thomas.

Advantage

This one is a coin toss right now.  As I said, Williams and Lee are different players.  It is possible the Cowboys could utilize each player in different situations (Lee in normal game situations, Williams when a big play is needed), but one guy figures to receive the bulk of the nickel snaps.  I am putting this battle at 50/50 right now, although if forced to select one, I would choose Lee due to his sensational spring workouts.